A Science Of Human Language - Part #2

Quistic Grammar : A New Universal Grammar

Part #1 of this series, I suggested that a grammar heavily based in syntax was not sufficiently scientific as a general theory of how language functions.  In developing the current theory I shall try to demonstrate that various observations about human language can be tied together into an inclusive theory of how language functions.  The first, and to my mind most important observation about human language is its redundancy, its apparent inefficiency in the use of the resources of sounds and symbols.

The Function Of Redundancy In Human Language

An examination of samples of speech and writing in any language reveal that the core ideas being transmitted can often be coded in multiple ways.   A few examples from English should serve to demonstrate this.  Let us assume a scenario in which there are two conversers, a worker and an observer.  There is a single nail which has not yet been used and a single hammer.  There are many ways in which an intention to act in the future may be communicated by the worker to the other.

"I shall hit that nail with this hammer."
"I'm going to hit that nail with my hammer."
"I'm going to hit that nail with the hammer."
"I be hitting that nail with hammer."
"Me hit hammer nail."
"Hit hammer nail."
"Hammer nail"

In all of these examples, the logical components of the overall idea of a future event remain fairly constant.  A question naturally arises as to why language permits so much variation of style.  In the given context there is little room for ambiguity and, I suggest, little need for rhetorical flourishes.  Apart from the key words 'hammer', 'nail' and, possibly, 'hit' the other words appear to be a mere decoration.  They appear to the casual observer to be non-essential to the core logical idea.  This is the concept of redundancy as I shall use it within the scope of this theory.

Redundancy: any component of spoken or written speech is redundant if, on casual inspection, it is not essential to the meaning being conveyed.

Redundancy is only a surface appearance.  Components which do not directly convey or contribute towards the core meaning of a communication actually perform a vital error-handling role.

Error Handling In Human Language

The redundancy in speech extends far below the word and phoneme level.  The band of frequencies within which the human ear can detect speech sounds is far wider than needed in an ideal situation.  The range of intensities which can be discriminated is also greater than needed ideally.   This redundancy serves a useful purpose.   The frequency range can be severely reduced.  Speech can be volume-clipped, frequency-shifted, time-sliced with silent 'drop-outs' and mixed with out-of phase echoes.  And yet the original speech can still be  understood.

In the domain of language as words, rather than sounds, we can cope with variations from our personal view of 'ideal' use of language.  In both speech and writing we frequently overlook variations of usage and errors of many kinds: the brain performs an error-correction function which is, for the most part, entirely unconscious.

The automatic error-correction process operates by utilizing the redundancy in language: a component of meaning which fails to arrive via one method arrives via another method within the same language segment.  Language has apparently evolved to reduce the number of instances in which a whole message must be re-transmitted.

Pre-emptive Error-Handling

I suggest that the brain's error-handler performs another vital function: pre-emptive error-handling.  The surplus information in the apparently redundant components of language allow the brain to look ahead and determine the word category which will most plausibly be added next to the chain of words.  A simple example borrows a convention of cryptography: the three characters Alice, Bob and Carol.  Given a situational context of these three characters in a story, a simple form of error-handling is possible.

"I think you are entirely wrong.", said ___.

Within the context of the story there are only three plausible options for the missing word.  It may well be that the previous dialogue narrows the plausible choice down to only one name.   If just one letter is given, the choice is narrowed:  a or c could apply to both Alice and Carol, whilst the other available letters reduce the choice to one person.

In a narrative, a picture is built up of the characters' behaviours.  A narrative usually makes clear the characters' genders.  This background information may also be brought to bear in error-handling.  Let us suppose that Bob is male, and the others female.   It is now possible to demonstrate the handling of an error using redundancy with contextual information.

"I think you are entirely wrong.", said ____ as he left the room.

We already know that Bob is male, so in the absence of error the word 'he' is entirely redundant.  But in the situation where an error arises, the knowledge that Bob is male and that the missing name is male lets us fill in the blank with little or no mental effort.

In most cases of an insignificant speech or writing error the brain's error-handler is so efficient that we are unaware of seeing or hearing the error.   In the case of the look-ahead function, however, it is a common experience to 'pull out a word' ahead of a speaker.   In the case of quoted speech following in a sequential dialogue, we may well be mentally reaching for 'Bob' even before we become aware that the word is masked or missing.

Ambiguity Error-Handling

Ambiguity in language is common, and is a common cause of misunderstanding.   Ambiguity can arise where two words with different meanings sound the same or are spelled the same.   It can also arise where a particular construction can convey two - perhaps more - meanings:
"Police officer arrests drunken party goer in his underwear." 
It is common for ambiguity to be discovered by careful analysis of samples of language.  

Unless ambiguity is particularly striking, it is rarely noticed by the average language user.  Redundancy in language provides one of the error-correction mechanisms by which ambiguity may be reduced or eliminated.  In a story about a vehicle spares shop, the line: "She stood on the brakes to reach the headlights." may be unremarkable.   But if the sentence is to be taken out of context, the judicious addition of redundancy provides cues, i.e. aids in resolving potential ambiguities: "She stood on the boxes of brake pads in order to reach the headlights on the top shelf."

Words As Cues

It has long been observed that words seem to fall into two classes: the 'content words',  and the 'grammar words' of language.  It is often stated that the 'grammar words' are not carriers of meaning.  I suggest that they do indeed carry meaning.  The meaning is best expressed as a clue or cue in the problem posed to every reader or hearer of language: the problem of determining the intent of the speaker or writer.

I suggest that all words can convey meaning, and all words can function as cues.  Words thus fall naturally into two classes: those whose primary function is to transmit meaning, and those whose primary function is to assist in error-handling.  By the  insertion of cues into strings of words in accordance with the rules of conformity of a shared language, a 'speaking brain' makes the task of analysis and  evaluation much easier for a 'listening brain'.  Reduction of work load has obvious evolutionary survival value.

Part #3 introduces the concept of 'rules of grammar' as social 'rules of conformity'.

If you enjoyed this article, you may enjoy other articles about language in my blog, The Chatter Box.